The Immoralist by Andre Gide

July 9, 2009

I have been going through old classics on my shelves recently. A couple months ago, I re-read Albert Camus’ THE STRANGER and THE FALL. My own view is that THE FALL (published in 1957) is a more mature and a deeper work than THE STRANGER (published in 1946). However, reading them back-to-back enriched the effect of both. Camus was obviously influenced by his good friends Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He was also influenced by the literature of Andre Gide. I decided to ride the theme and re-read THE IMMORALIST.

TheImmoralistTHE IMMORALIST (written in 1902) precedes Camus’ works both chronologically and in the philosophical sense. Gide posed questions with which Camus later grappled. I probably should have read Gide before Camus, to follow the historical progression, but reading Gide out of order probably gives me greater appreciation of Gide. Gide’s work is outstanding.

He wrote in the preface: “One may without too much conceit, I think, prefer the risk of failing to interest the moment by what is genuinely interesting — to beguiling momentarily a public fond of trash.” Whether conceited or not, Gide did tackle the genuinely interesting. I am very glad he did.

Most of the novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Michel. However, Michel’s narrative is related to us secondhand through one of his friends. The novel begins with a letter from one friend of Michel’s to a government official. The short letter poses an opening question: “Can we accommodate so much intelligence, so much strength–or must we refuse them any place among us?”

While the question is posed in the context of a letter examining whether Michel could be of use to the state, I think this is the question Gide is really asking the reader about such supermen and society. (Nietzsche’s WILL TO POWER was written one year later.) Gide does not answer the question. He explained: “I wanted to write this book neither as an indictment of Michel nor as an apology, and I have taken care not to pass judgment.”

The text of the letter is followed by a purportedly verbatim account by Michel of his recent life. Michel’s account begins with his marriage to Marceline, a woman he did not love; unless “love means tenderness, a kind of pity, as well as a good deal of respect.” Prior to the marriage, Michel was single-mindedly bookish. He tells his friend that his “excessively sedentary life…weakened and protected [him] at the same time.” His wife, in contrast, was physically strong and healthy.

Michel describes the transformation of his life by marriage:

I had lived for myself or at least on my own terms till then; I had married without imagining my wife as anything but a comrade, without really supposing that, by our union, my life might be transformed. I had just understood at last that the monologue was ending now.

Michel’s wife seems more engaged in the marriage. When Michel contracts tuberculosis in a small desert town, Marceline dutiful nurses him. Michel is sure “that her devoted care, that her love and nothing else, saved [him].” The disaparity in their affection for each other persists throughout the novel. Marceline seems always to be trying to win Michel’s affection while Michel more often sees the marriage as an obligation. The view presented of marriage is rather bleak. But then, Gide’s own marriage ended unhappily when he eloped with the sixteen year-old son of his best man. While Gide warned against confusing Michel with Gide, Gide was at least writing what he knew.

Michel’s illness awakens him, he believes, to life.

What matters is that merely being alive became quite amazing for me, and that the daylight acquired an unhoped-for radiance. Till now, I would think, I never realized that I was alive. Now I would make the thrilling discovery of life.

Michel’s recovery is slow, if sure. In his recovery, he determined that he must redefine “Good” and “Right” to mean “whatever was healthy for [him].” This is an important turning point. However, despite his earlier assurance that only Marceline’s “devoted care” saved him, he soon sees her as, if not an impediment to recovery, then a irritant. He discovers that Marceline has been become acquainted with a group of local boys and rejects Marceline’s company in favor of the company of the boys. The boys are, after all, vigorously alive and youthful.

Michel spends the rest of the novel exploring the world and his newfound philosophy of life. For Michel, “sensation was becoming as powerful as thoughts.” Gide magnificently manages Michel’s transformation from a dependable, bookish man of means to a rather self-centered, erratic, pleasure-seeker. But Michel’s pleasure-seeking is not simple hedonism, he is trying to navigate between living in the past (as in his previous vocation as scholar of history) and living only for the future.

A man Michel meets, Menalque, encourages him in his new life. Menalque explains his own philosophy:

I create each hour’s newness by forgetting yesterday completely. Having been happy is never enough for me. I don’t believe in dead things. What’s the difference between no longer being and never having been?

The conflict between Michel’s “will to power” and his obligations, including those to Marceline, provides the tension for the remainder of the novel. Marceline becomes ill and it is Michel’s handling of her illness that poses the most serious question to the reader. Michel is bent on living the remainder of his life in the present, yet he cannot quite abandon Marceline, at least not completely.

For long stretches he is preoccupied with new friendships, all of which are interesting and illuminating. His obligations as a landlord constrict him and social obligations oppress. But the central pull, preventing Michel from living entirely as he would, is Marceline and her illness. By the end of the book, Michel feels he has liberated himself, but that: “This useless freedom tortures me.”

As one would expect from a writer who inspired Sartre, Camus, and many others, Gide has written a book with the power to be life changing. At the least, THE IMMORALIST raises profound questions that are difficult to ignore.

I am already partial to the absurdists and the existentialists. Gide is a necessary part of that group. If you do not have a similar bent, you may not get quite the same enjoyment from THE IMMORALIST, but it is almost certain to be intellectually stimulating. While I would not go so far as to say that I consider THE IMMORALIST to be an essential novel like Camus’ THE FALL, I do think it is one of those novels than can enrich one’s worldview and, certainly, enrich one’s appreciation of Camus’ absurdism and Sartre’s existentialism.